Cricket: Third Test - England's theatre of bad dreams

England 108-5 v New Zealand, New Zealand bowlers make most of a disgraceful pitch as out-of-form batsmen make painful progress
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The Independent Online
THERE ARE two Old Traffords. One is known as the "Theatre of Dreams" where a certain football team play. The other, following another limp England performance, was more like a "dreary turn of teams", though New Zealand's reputation of being one of the least charismatic sides on earth is being rapidly eroded by the home side, whose batsmen once again struggled to assert themselves in the face of some disciplined bowling.

The potential for gremlins was always going to be high and, when the selector and batting coach Graham Gooch said it would be a low-scoring game, he probably did not have a first-day score of 108 for 5, from 60 overs, in mind.

Unlike Lord's, where mental sloppiness accounted for more wickets than decent balls, the application could not be faulted. Indeed, on a difficult pitch, with irregular bounce and pace, no-one threw their wicket away, which was just as well, for a struggling team can ill-afford kamikaze gestures. Nevertheless it still needed somebody to put the Kiwi bowlers under pressure and just over half of the overs bowled were maidens.

A stand-in captain, some dubious umpiring, and a pitch totally unsuited to strokeplay all contributed to England's woes, though Mark Butcher did little wrong and even managed to win a useful toss, something his predecessors had not done with great regularity.

Considering it was the first day of a Test match, the pitch was a disgrace. Old Trafford has a small square with only a few strips suitable for television. Given that the ground hosted three World Cup matches, the official line is that they have been forced into over-use. As explanations go it was plausible. As an excuse it was indefensible, though pitches throughout England appear to be degenerating. This is Test cricket, for pity's sake, and it demands a true surface, at least for the first few days.

The authorities normally hope these things go unnoticed, but the public were not fooled on this occasion. Apart from some slow hand-clapping, one spectator pointed out that he had "spent 80 quid on watching this rubbish. That's almost a quid a run". Mind you, the general frustration of the paying public would not have been helped by the loss of two hours play to rain or the tardiness of the umpires in getting play restarted.

None struggled more with the conditions than Michael Atherton, the prodigal son resuming his Test career on home turf. Atherton batted two hours for 11, facing 90 balls, just five of which were scored off. Perhaps word of his intentions to occupy the crease by grit alone got out, for only 7,000 turned up, less than those passing through the turnstiles of the Manchester United megastore.

Like Butcher, who was caught behind after failing to cover some extra bounce from Chris Cairns in the fifth over, Atherton also fell to a decent ball from the tall all-rounder. The Lancashire opener has scored four of his 12 Test centuries against New Zealand, and his scalp was greeted with glee by the fielding side.

Alec Stewart was also slow to get going, taking 24 balls to get off the mar k. When he did, he cracked a couple of trademark boundaries, though Nathan Astle should have snapped him up at second slip the ball before lunch.

The miss did not prove expensive and Stewart had added just 15 when Dion Nash forced him to play away from his body. Although a convincing appeal went up, Stewart held his ground. As a bluffer, he would make an excellent poker player, but umpire Russell Tiffin raised his finger.

For once it looked as if Stewart might have been hard done by after neither the replay nor Channel 4's snickometer showed the slightest blip as the ball passed bat. The latter is meant to be infallible, or would be had the microphone been turned on.

Cairns and Nash have provided a stern examination of the home side's technique and temperament. Together the pair bowled 42 overs between them, finishing the day with identical figures of 2 for 36. No-one was immune from their stranglehold. Striking the ball solidly in defence as well as attack, Hick looked set for a score. Instead a poor lbw decision from umpire Tiffin, following an inswinging full toss from Nash, sent him packing.

The introduction of Daniel Vettori in the 44th over changed the tempo. It also changed Graham Thorpe's mindset and, having been comfortable against the pacemen, he became jittery against the spinner, who had him caught off bat and pad at short-leg. With him gone, England's hopes of reaching a competitive total lie with Mark Ramprakash and the tail. It is time he showed everyone the true extent of his talent.

Jon Culley at Old Trafford, county cricket, page 22


First day; England won toss

ENGLAND - First Innings

*M A Butcher c Fleming b Cairns 5

20 min, 16 balls, 1 four

M A Atherton c Parore b Cairns 11

136 min, 90 balls, 1 four

A J Stewart c Parore b Nash 23

84 min, 54 balls, 4 fours

G P Thorpe c Bell b Vettori 27

124 min, 98 balls, 2 fours

G A Hick lbw b Nash 12

31 min, 21 balls, 3 fours

M R Ramprakash not out 12

84 min, 74 balls

D W Headley 1

22 min, 13 balls

Extras (b6, lb6, w5) 17

Total (for 5, 61 overs) 108

Fall: 1-13 (Butcher), 2-54 (Stewart), 3-60 (Atherton), 4-83 (Hick), 5- 104 (Thorpe).

To bat: C M W Read, A R Caddick, P M Such, P C R Tufnell.

Bowling: Cairns 20-12-36-2 (w5) (11-6-28-1, 1-1-0-0, 6-3-8-1, 2-2-0-0); Nash 22-13-36-2 (13-9-15-1, 6-1-21-1, 3-3-0-0); Astle 9-4-10-0 (4-2-2- 0, 5-2-8-0); Vettori 10-3-14-1 (one spell).

Progress: Start delayed until noon. Lunch: 33-1 (Atherton 6, Stewart 8) 13 overs. 50: 91 min, 19.3 overs. Rain stopped play: 2.45-4.58pm, 56 for 2 (Atherton 11, Thorpe1) 28.2 overs. 100: 212 min, 49.4 overs.

NEW ZEALAND: M J Horne, M D Bell, *S P Fleming, N J Astle R G Twose, C D McMillan, A C Parore, C L Cairns, D L Vettori, D J Nash, C Z Harris.

Umpires: D R Shepherd (Eng) and R Tiffin (Zim). Compiled by Jo King